Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Rome, Ian Traynor in Brussels and Patrick Kingsley in Zuwara, The Guardian (UK)
Italian and Maltese vessels respond to calls from inflatable liferaft with up to 150 people on board and a boat with 300 as EU ministers discuss recent tragedies
Italian and Maltese ships were responding to distress calls from two migrant boats in the Mediterranean as EU interior and foreign ministers met to discuss the latest tragedies. The Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, told a joint press conference with his Maltese counterpart, Joseph Muscat, that ships from the two countries were responding to distress calls from an inflatable liferaft off the Libyan coast with 100 to 150 people on board and another vessel with 300 people on board.
In another incident on Monday at least three people died when a boat ran aground off the Greek island of Rhodes. Video footage showed a large, wooden double-masted vessel packed with people and just metres from the land. It rocked wildly in the waves and passengers were seen jumping into the sea and swimming towards land.
As well as the interior and foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg on Monday, EU leaders announced that they would hold an emergency summit on Thursday to address the crisis in the Mediterranean. The EU president, Donald Tusk, made the announcement on Monday after days of indecision on how to tackle the rapidly worsening situation.
Meanwhile, Malta is preparing to bury the bodies of 24 migrants killed in the weekend’s sinking, which looks likely to be the worst of its kind in the Mediterranean. The Italian coastguard dropped off the bodies before heading to Sicily with 28 survivors. Muscat said survivors spoke of “haunting experiences”.
One survivor from Bangladesh has told investigators he believed there were about 950 people on board the ship, which would mean a death toll higher than the 700 reported at the weekend. The Italian prosecutor Giovanni Salvi said, however, that the higher number should be treated with caution.
Coastguard officials said the vessel probably overturned when the migrants caught sight of a Portuguese ship and all moved to the same side of their boat. Salvi said the smuggler’s boat had three levels and migrants were locked in the hull and on the second level.
Libyan smugglers tell migrants to remain still during the crossing to Europe, in full knowledge that even small movements of such overcrowded boats could overbalance and capsize them. According to a fisherman from a major smuggling hub in west Libya, the ships that capsized with catastrophic effect in recent days did so because migrants ignored their instructions.
“When they leave, they are told to stay where they’re seated,” he said. “Then at daybreak they realise they’re in the midst of the ocean, they start to shift around and then the boat, which can only withstand a certain number of tons, has its balance shifted. It starts to take on water and begins to sink.” Before Sunday’s capsizing, the International Organisation for Migration estimated that about 20,000 migrants had reached the Italian coast this year, and 900 had died.
Monday’s meeting of EU interior and foreign ministers was to have been routine, but it has been transformed into a crisis session as clamour grows for action to stem the loss of life in the Mediterranean.
The EU foreign affairs chief, Federica Mogherini, demanded immediate action. “With this latest tragedy … we have no more excuses, the EU has no more excuses, the member states have no more excuses,” she said. “The main issue here is to build a common sense of European responsibility, knowing that there is no easy solution.”
There will be tough words in Luxembourg about clamping down on the criminal networks of traffickers in Libya and elsewhere in north Africa and about the need to tackle the roots of migration at source in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. “We should put the blame squarely with the criminal human traffickers who are the ones managing, promoting and selling this trade, this trade in human life,” said the British prime minister, David Cameron. “We are doing everything we can to try and stop them.”
He advocated a comprehensive approach: “You have got to deal with the instability in the countries concerned, you have got to go after the human traffickers and the criminals that are running this trade. You have got to make sure, yes there is an element of search and rescue, but that can only be one part of this.”
European governments, deeply divided over how to respond, appear impotent in the face of the surge of migrants risking their lives to reach European shores, and are reluctant to relax immigration policies for fear of boosting support at home for anti-immigrant parties doing well in many parts of the union.
The national governments of Europe, as opposed to the EU institutions in Brussels, are responsible almost entirely for immigration policy and jealously guard their national prerogatives. Dimitris Avramopoulos, the European commissioner responsible for migration issues, will attend the Luxembourg meeting. He is to unveil a new EU policy blueprint next month, but power rests overwhelmingly in national capitals.
While the ministers are unlikely to agree on any swift, concerted action to mitigate the problem, the EU’s failure to mount effective naval patrols charged with saving lives is has been loudly condemned as a scandal.
The crisis has put the spotlight on Renzi, who on Sunday issued a harsh critique of his European partners for not assisting Italy as it tries to cope with the influx of migrants. He called the traffickers the “slave drivers” of the 21st century, and has insisted for months that the solution was not increasing patrols at sea, but instead focusing international efforts on returning stability to Libya.
“It is unthinkable that in the face of such a tragedy, there isn’t the feeling of solidarity which Europe has shown in other instances,” he said. “We ask not to be left alone, not so much when it comes to emergencies at sea, but to stop the trafficking of human beings.”
Gianni Pittella, the Italian social democrat floor leader in the European parliament, accused EU governments of hypocrisy. “The deafening silence of so many member states is an embarrassment, no longer acceptable,” he said.
Particular criticism is being directed at the EU’s lacklustre maritime patrols in the Mediterranean. The Triton mission under the EU’s Frontex border control agency has only one helicopter, one aircraft and nine vessels. It has no search-and-rescue mandate, and merely patrols Italian territorial waters. It replaced a much more ambitious, effective and costly Italian navy operation, Mare Nostrum, last year. Frontex’s annual budget is a paltry €90m (£65m).
The IOM said the Triton mission had to be expanded into a proper search-and-rescue operation, noting that European naval operations off the Horn of Africa in recent years had succeeded in combatting Somali piracy.
It also called for swift action from the EU following “the worst tragedy in living memory involving migrants crossing the Mediterranean from north Africa”.
The Latvian government, which currently holds the EU’s six-month rotating presidency, called for “speedy action to prevent further loss of life” and urged governments to commit greater resources for Frontex.
“Options should be explored for setting up a full-fledged search-and-rescue operation of the EU,” said Rihards Kozlovskis, the Latvian interior minister.
“The EU is standing by with arms crossed while hundreds die off its shores,” said Judith Sutherland, the deputy Europe director at Human Rights Watch. “These deaths might well have been prevented if the EU had launched a genuine search-and-rescue effort.”
Agence France-Presse contributed to this report